by Suzanne Belote Shanley
Recently, I read a critique by Alexandra Fuller of memoir as a literary genre: “Most memoir material is best saved for the shrink’s couch. …In order to balance its innate narcissism, a memoir ought to instruct.” I read these words at a time when Brayton and I had recently reviewed the first published copies of our retrospective on forty-two year peacemaking history, “Loving Life on the Margins: The Story of the Agape Community.”
During the writing process, we tried to stay away from shrink-couch revelations and “innate narcissism.” At the same time, I had to acknowledge that a modicum of self-revelation with a little narcissism thrown in, are inextricably linked to any writing that is even remotely autobiographical.
Finding one’s own voice is the touchstone of any writer’s self-understanding though, at times that interior voice remains inaudible and unarticulated. Writing this book entailed searching for and finding my voice and articulating it as my soul’s journey, an anguishing endeavor.
A central truth in completing this book was that as conflicted as I had been throughout the writing process about characterizing my inner life, I always knew that such disclosure was, to some degree, inevitable and mandatory. Without intimacy, there would be no narrative, no book, no life, no way to integrate personal and community past and future. Relationships are treasured expressions of the depth of human encounter.
Fuller says that a memorist must “write down her experience with as much art and truth as she can muster.” (NY Times Book Review, 4/21/19). Therefore working from the premise of writing as a sacred trust, I considered sharing the personal details of my life with others as a holy, excruciating effort, a three year process.
In my co-authoring of this book with Brayton, I had set my writer’s heart on making public aspects of my personal history, no matter how painful. I learned as I wrote that praying for and placing trust in the reader was a grace given and received.
My belief in friendship with Christ has always been the starting point for me, believing in this cosmic intimacy as it radiates out to embrace others, ultimately pointing to the building of beloved community. Shared friendship with Jesus, intimacy of heart and mind, are intrinsic to the gospel and to my own personal travels on this planet. Luke’s depiction in Acts of the Apostles, of Jesus’s friends’ hearts beating for and through each other have been a model of how I view my own tribal ties with the Jesus story.
So in the writing of the book, I grappled these questions: How does a book such as “Loving Life on the Margins” fit within literary definition or genre? If not a memoir, what is it? Community history? Narrative of nonviolent lineage? A spiritual journey of a soul? How does one describe a book about gospel-based discovery of a “new” non-biological family that is autobiographical, but also relates to early expressions of Christian Community?
At Agape’s opening in 1989, Mike True, recently departed friend, author and nonviolent historian, observed in his remarks that Agape shared a lineage with gospel-based, activist communities through the centuries and put Agape on a continuum that included a Hopedale, Massachusetts community begun by a Unitarian minister, Adin Ballou, who, in 1831 lost his preaching license because he had become a prominent American proponent of pacifism, socialism and abolitionism. According to Mike True, Agape was on this continuum.
A fellow traveler with Agape for over 30 years, Fr. John Sullivan, a Lasalette priest, responded to my query of “What do we call this book?” which he had just finished reading, with this observation: “‘Loving Life on the Margins’ is a lens on the history of nonviolence.” As lofty and potentially self –congratulatory as John’s reaction felt, it did begin to solidify a non-memoir description for Loving Life on the Margins.
We hoped to illuminate our motivation in writing: to bear witness to that lineage that Mike True spoke of back in 1989. The idea of our book as a memoir was singularly unappealing to me, given all of the secular literary commercialization associated with this form, with sometimes shallow, self-serving records of personal aggrandizement in cases of the plethora of such books put out by the twenty-plus democratic presidential candidates.
Birthing a Book
The huge Fed-Ex truck delivered several cardboard boxes full of “Loving Life on the Margins,” which arrived at the community during Lent. With its fresh green cover, enhanced by an iconic photo of the community’s 25th anniversary, by Agape member, photo-journalist, Skip Schiel, the book provided an anticipatory taste of Easter—time to celebrate. Nevertheless, my on-going self-consciousness about publication was significant enough that I didn’t quite feel like cracking open the champagne. Instead, I was stuck in a repeated interior monologue: “Did you really write this? Now what?”
Reservations or not, sheer relief filled me –40 years of Brayton and my life jammed into 300 pages—done. A handful of photos from thousands, at long last–done. The methodical work on sales and promotion lingered like an approaching storm, along with the crucial question: How would our labor of love, the birth of our shared history, be received?
All of these ruminations came to a shocking halt when, in one of those split-second life reversals, I tripped on the last step at Brigid House’s stairwell and fractured my right foot in three places. Before the blinding pain, I can remember thinking. “Oh no! This is bad!”
That cry emanated not only for the shattered bones, but also from the distress of knowing that this would be the end of a much-anticipated trip to Fordham University scheduled for the next day and for which I was preparing.
Brayton and I had planned to meet with graduate students, a Jesuit priest friend, Fr. Tom Massaro, whose recent book, “Mercy in Action: The Social Teachings of Pope Francis” preceded our book by a year, and to attend a presentation by Jim Robinson, a PhD candidate in Theology at Fordham. Jim, a member of Agape’s Mission Council, was to deliver a paper that included comments on his time at Agape in light of writings by Thomas Merton and Rosemary Radford Ruether. The most crushing blow was not meeting my life-time inspiration, feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson CSJ. All of these plans, over in a split second.
Excruciating pain during and after hospitalization and surgery coincided with the urgency of what would now happen to the book. It seemed that our late-in-life baby would be orphaned for at least three months…no little desolation. Instead of a grad school luncheon and travel I was faced hospital beds and nurses’ call buttons.
Consolation on the Way
Returning to Brigid House to occupy a makeshift hospital bed in the middle of the living room, after ten days in the hospital and rehab, a Marist priest friend whom we had known from our early community years, Fr. Paul Frechette, visited Agape. We reveled in shared memories of thirty years ago, our parallel history and people we knew in common, as well as stories of Paul’s life as a missionary and his current post as the Provincial of the Marists in the US.
Paul offered Mass, while I sat in bed, damaged leg held aloft in a crudely constructed cast. His shared homily highlighted a book he was reading, “The Passion at the Cross” by Ronald Rolheiser, a commentary on Luke’s gospel and the Road to Emmaus. (Luke 34:13-35)
The familiar passage recounts that while the disciples were on the post-Resurrection road to the town of Emmaus, “seven miles away from Jerusalem. …discussing as they went all that had happened,” the resurrected Jesus appeared to them. At long last, with the breaking of bread, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” (Luke 25)
Paul referred to Rolheiser’s comment that the disciples were miserable, dwelling in “frozen places,” emotionally and settling for a “life without enthusiasm. … with joy frozen.”
I related. My “frozen place,” confined to a wheelchair when I was supposed to at Fordham University, led me to dwell disconsolately on my predicament; that is, until Jesus appeared in the form of nurses and aides responding to my every need around the clock.
Eventually, Jesus tells the disciples to abandon their plans to get to Emmaus and to turn back to Jerusalem. “Hearts burning,” they stopped their journey mid-way and, returned, undefeated, having eaten with Jesus, whom they thought was dead, to Jerusalem “where they found the eleven and the rest of the company assembled.” (Luke 24:33)
My setback, although excruciating on multiple levels, offered me a new way of seeing. My foot was literally broken, and in many ways, so too was my spirit. I yearned for a heart that would burn with proximity to Jesus, more Easter spirit of rebirth; Instead, I was feeling neither risen with Christ nor joyful. Or so it seemed, until Easter Vigil at Agape, and my return that day from the hospital, to drive up long and winding Agape driveway.
Alone in Brigid House while the Agape liturgy was proceeding with the gathered community of about forty people, uncomfortable and in pain, I resigned myself to a return to lent. I was stuck, frozen. All I could think of was months of recovery. And then Jesus appeared, once again. I did, in fact, recognize him in the form of fifteen Agape souls, who, were on a secret evening mission, from Francis House to Brigid House.
Some of Agape’s Easter vigilers had decided to surprise me after Mass, with a candle-lit procession from Francis House, to my bed in the living room of Brigid House. Led by Alicen Roberts, a Smith College freshman, when she came to Agape and currently a theology grad school student at Yale, the gathered worshipers serenaded me in a mission that Alicen called Easter Caroling.
As these exultant beings with hand-held candles walked in the door, I made out the strains of “Christ is Risen from the Dead.” One by one, my friends took position in front of the Brigid House wood-burning stove, lighting up the darkness, their hearts and faces aglow basked in their light. My frozen places began to melt. Self-pity, fatigue, depression, lifted. My gloomy heart was like a starter box of kindling wood, waiting for the match.
The Christ bearers enveloped me in an aura of healing as each of them embraced and hugged me, emotion and friendship pouring over my inert leg and soul. I couldn’t help but think of the words of poet, William Blake: “And we are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.” In my depleted state, I was learning to bear the beams of love.
Jesus could well have been speaking to me when he said to the disciples: “What little sense you have.” After all of these years counting on community, I didn’t have the sense to know that community was manifesting right before my eyes.
Agape life in a wheelchair, now took on a new meaning: what I had been lamenting as reversal and defeat was in fact a return. I had returned to the place of my beginnings, my Agape home, just as the disciples were turned back to Jerusalem, their center. Community is my center. My friends had rolled away the stone of my defeat. These faces, these lives, became the truth and afterglow and fruition of writing the book “Loving Life on the Margins.”
I was reading and turning the pages of my own book sitting there with a cast on my leg, and the characters in the book, my friends, were standing right in front of me.
When, as the book’s title suggests, we live and love on the margins, we do not walk alone. Jesus walks with us, although at times, we are “restrained from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16) by our own obtuseness. I couldn’t walk, but I could see before me, I wasn’t alone. With shimmering truth and light, I felt the words my family sang as my own: “Christ is Risen! Don’t be afraid. You are not alone.”